Generally, in cinema, there are greater crimes than overreaching. It’s often easy to forgive films that feature failures of execution if the ideas hold up to scrutiny. Unfortunately, Kamen Kalev’s second feature as writer-director, the woefully misguided The Island, is almost an opposite case: it’s an occasionally beautifully-rendered take on some seriously muddled material.
The Island‘s first hour-and-a-bit plays an awful lot like any number of domestic psychodramas. A couple, Daneel (Thure Lindhardt) and Sophie (Laetitia Casta), decide to go on a spontaneous vacation, with the location to be decided independently by Sophie, who wishes to give Daneel a break from his grueling work schedule. Much to Daneel’s horror, Sophie chooses Bulgaria, which, unbeknownst to her, is the country of his birth and early childhood. They agree to vacation there regardless, and wind up staying at a monastery on a nearly-deserted island of picturesque beauty. Soon after their arrival, though, both Daneel and some of the locals begin to act strangely, as though Daneel’s history there represents some lingering threat.
For this section of the film, The Island is simply mediocre rather than counfounding. Daneel and Sophie intermittently probe into Daneel’s possibly-troubled past while soaking in the landscapes, Daneel and Sophie argue, Daneel and Sophie threaten to splinter, etc. Just over the film’s halfway mark, however, a serious formal and thematic break is made, and the titular setting is (mostly) left behind in favor of a landlocked set of plot points themed around (spoiler alert) Daneel entering the Bulgarian edition of Big Brother while pretending to be mentally handicapped. In the process, Kalev’s film transforms abruptly from familiar psychodrama to unsublte media satire that feels weirdly inspired by the series finale of Ricky Gervais’s Extras. This is all in service of a philosophical moral that boils down to “we all contain multitudes,” as expressed by one of the island’s denizens earlier in the film, a message that’s reinforced with a mildly insulting final scene. (End spoilers.)
The drastic narrative and tonal shift is a disastrous move, one which ensures a total disengagement with the fate of the film’s central characters, and whose philosophical bent feels half-cocked at best. Which is all too bad, as the setting and sterling cinematography allow for a couple of bewitching moments, especially the sight of a car crossing a shallow river, practically unnoticed. Though Lindhardt grates early and often, Casta does fine work with a character whose motivations are increasingly mysterious. Mostly, though, The Island winds up feeling like one forgettable movie attached at the hip to an unbelievably awful one.
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